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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Piercing the Armour

The cell-like room was hot, the white walls close, sparsely decorated, and the lighting somewhat harsh until dimmed for relaxation. The music was the standard, mindless New Age tinklings of drifting flutes, bells and harps, composed to empty your brain. I lay on the table semi-clad for my first acupuncture appointment. Lately the pain in my swollen, stiff middle finger has been extreme, severely limiting my activities some days. I can no longer knit, nor do many fine-motor tasks with my dominant right hand so compromised. I am having little trouble, however, with large-motor tasks which include all the not-so-fun jobs like shoveling snow and housekeeping. That is as long as I don't jar that finger, causing blades of pain to stab at my hand and an expletive or two to escape my mouth.

I had run out of strategies. The anti-inflammatory medication I had been pumping for months, increased significantly during my recent gallbladder challenges, seemed to have eaten a hole in my stomach and was responsible for much of the very dramatic pain I suffered in conjunction with the gallbladder discomfort. I am no longer willing to go down that road so I have had to limit my usage to when the pain is so unpleasant that I can barely use the hand, but I must be sure to swallow only a single pill with a bite to eat. Besides, the relief offered is minimal now. I have an appointment with my GP in a few days to discuss conventional treatment for what I am assuming is no longer just an arthritic digit. I am speculating that this could be related to the broken right wrist I suffered four years ago since this problem arose shortly thereafter and has gradually worsened, whereas the minor arthritis in the rest of my fingers is stable and barely painful at all. It also coincided with the unraveling of our lives in 2009 when Michael's condition changed so drastically and two family deaths occurred, but I am not certain how much impact stress has on such a condition. I am now even prepared to undergo cortisone shots if that is all that will allay this pain. On a bad day I imagine amputation might not be such a bad idea, though I suspect I might have a hard time convincing any doctor to comply with that wish.

In a last ditch effort before anything drastic I decided I had nothing to lose with acupuncture. I had tried many other alternative treatments, including homeopathy and the standard glucosamine/chondroitin/MSM concoction, but all with limited to no success.  One friend suggested wryly that perhaps I just hadn't used that expressive finger enough in my life and it was time to change. I can report that no matter how much satisfaction that might afford, it hasn't alleviated the pain.

The therapist is an earnest middle-aged woman who provided me with a thirteen page questionnaire to complete before my first appointment: Family history, menstrual/menopausal, sexual  (On a scale of one to ten how would you rate your feelings about sex, ten being excellent? My response: If I had a sex life then my response would be a resounding ten)  and pregnancy details, even stress levels and emotional health to which I responded "coping well under duress." She determined through careful observation of my tongue and the ominous beeps from a mysterious gadget to measure electrical circuitry she applied to various points on my body that I did, in fact, have discomfort in my right hand, that I had liver, gallbladder (there isn't one) and pancreas issues as well as lower intestine, and my grief and anxiety measure was high. Whose isn't? I was trying hard to swallow my skepticism.

After describing to me the procedure of strategically placing needles into various points all over my body, first in the front, then on my back, she began. I was amazed how painless the insertion of dozens of needles was, even the four she put around the highly sensitive knuckle. I had to lie very still for over an hour, a challenge for me, only moving to roll over to do the back. To move a muscle sent rippling pain; I was pinned to the table. An extraordinary heat rose up to my face, and an overwhelming sense of relaxation made me resolve that no matter what the results, this feeling alone was worth a return visit.

My therapist advised me not to engage in any strenuous activity for the rest of the day which I don't think would have been possible given the lead that seemed to have infused my limbs. I simply curled up on the couch at home and rested my very heavy arm. It wasn't an uncomfortable feeling, more as if my arm was taking control, rebelling and refusing to get up off the couch to work. My body was overriding my usual restlessness.

Over the next few days my finger was still as stiff and swollen as before but the pain had subsided, a feeling akin to the effects of the anti-inflammatory medication when it worked. The difference was the length of time, the acupuncture relief lasting about four days compared to just a few hours on the medication if I was lucky. I have now had three appointments and the results remain the same for my finger, very modestly successful.

But the most surprising results were completely unexpected. The menopausal hot flashes that had been plaguing me every two hours through the night and had forced me to strip down at embarrassing moments during the day, all but disappeared over the first four days after the initial treatment. As well, all the lingering digestive complaints I had after the gallbladder surgery vanished too. These results have been constant and sustained. A huge relief.

Having perfected my emotional survival instincts over the years by pushing everything down beneath a hard shell, I was less prepared for another possible effect of this human pincushion technique. I began to see my hot flashes metaphorically, as suppressed emotions steaming beneath the surface. As they cooled and condensed with the treatments, the tears began to flow and hidden hot anger was pushed out over the weeks. A surging despair and loneliness were washed away with the waters, a necessary purging. 

I will return for more treatments for the foreseeable future. I don't know if my finger will improve beyond the moderate pain relief but already my quality of life has improved with increased sleep and general well-being, essential for survival in this job of caregiving.  In the meantime my doctor can investigate other strategies if they exist. 

*Acupuncture chart from the Ming Dynasty: The Pericardium Meridian of Hand-Jueyin

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Late Night Chats

The only time she can count on a reprieve from the screaming television and daily duties is late at night, dogs and husband safely tucked in and snoring peacefully. Usually she has a tranquil hour or two before sleep if the Parkinson's gods do not need to be placated.

A recently acquired smartphone makes internet easily accessible from her bed - too easily. Before this acquisition her laptop was also put to bed with the boys, left to sleep on the dining room table, far enough away to resist the temptation of late-night communications with friends and family. She has always been so sensible, reading a few pages then falling asleep to an audiobook or a radio interview.

But it is a lonely time. She is long over the novelty of feeling like a single girl with her own space, a recurring dream through all those years of a full house and intensive childcare, homeschooling and a husband's worsening health; the need for escape sometimes overwhelmed. These days she longs for company, nothing more than someone with whom to rehash the day, companionably propped up on the pillows, sharing the last few moments before sleep. She has hardened herself to the lack of physical contact, the only evidence of yearning surfacing in a pleasant dream now and then, but even those are rare events now...sadly.

The device that holds her escape-life sits plugged into its dock, rejuicing. It holds her audiobooks, poised to be activated during the many menopausal interruptions to her night. The comforting voices of the narrators soothe her, feel like company. It is a return to her story-telling childhood when her mother - and sometimes brother and sister - would perch on her bed to read aloud. Winnie-the-Pooh, Wind in the Willows, Grimms' Fairy Tales. She was a late bloomer in the reading department or had she just preferred the warmth of those bedtime stories to reading alone?

Last night she picked up a new book discovered at the second-hand store. A Norton Anthology of essays, "expository prose" officially. She flipped through it, a richness of brilliant writing, short nuggets to be quickly absorbed before bed. John Holt (a hero), Thomas Jefferson, C.S. Lewis, Northrop Fry, Jonathan Swift. She decided to take a random stab, opening the book anywhere after her initial browse; Margaret Laurence's "Where the World Began" beckoned to her.

It was a lovely little description of this famous Canadian writer's prairie hometown, a place she longed to escape as a teenager. Escape she did but Ms. Laurence admits that she carried "the land and town all my life within my skull", where she had "learned the sight of my own particular eyes."

The words seemed familiar to her. Lately, through the miracle of internet and Facebook, she has reconnected with old childhood schoolmates. Tomorrow, in fact, is the fortieth reunion of her high school graduating class in Vancouver, an event she had hoped to attend but has been thwarted by Michael's condition. Instead her old friends are planning a remote visit on Saturday night via computer. She is grateful to them for the idea.

These reconnections have stirred up old memories, both happy and uncomfortable. "This was my territory in the time of my youth," Margaret Laurence writes, "and in a sense my life since then has been an attempt to look at it, to come to terms with it." She reached for the too-conveniently close iphone and wrote a brief message to an even older friend who, she knew, would appreciate these words. He and she have recently reconnected through the wonders of fiber optics after being childhood schoolmates only, not really even friends. They share the experience of her father as their teacher and principal in that magical, small and isolated, northern coastal B.C. village. It was an untamed geography that reached into the soul, that tiny community set amidst the majesty and power of those violent mountains and wildlife.

What ensued was a chat about forts in the forest, bears, their love of this small town even though "the oddities of the place were endless." It was a comforting little written exchange just before sleepiness overcame her.

But she awoke this morning with a burning throat, as though scorched by long-silenced conversations and suppressed emotions left smouldering in the throat.

Kemano, British Columbia, photographer unknown.